There are two things audience members know to look for in an M. Night Shyamalan film at this point: a big twist, and a cameo from the director. The first may or may not happen, and can color the entire experience, for good or ill. The latter, however, can be just as distracting — like when Shyamalan escalates his role in a movie from cameo to full-blown integral character, like in his disastrous 2006 film Lady in the Water. Shyamalan is a polarizing director and a pretty stiff actor, and how distracting or charming his acting becomes is highly dependent on whether his specific schtick works for a specific viewer. But maybe there’s a little bit more to his acting roles than that.
Shyamalan’s cameo in his latest film, Knock at the Cabin, is a standout for how funny it is compared to the movie it’s in. Knock at the Cabin is a deadly serious story about a group of home invaders who believe the apocalypse is coming, and that the only way to avert it is to break into a family’s cabin and convince one of the family members to willingly kill one of the others. In order to convince the family of this patently outrageous claim, Leonard (Dave Bautista), the leader of the zealous home invaders, turns on cable news to prove that a new apocalyptic event will happen each time the family refuses to make the required sacrifice.
Before they find the channel, however, Shyamalan appears as a character on a TV infomercial, peddling a nonsensical kitchen gadget. To those who recognize him, it’s an extremely funny moment. Shyamalan is self-deprecating and silly in the midst of a grave situation. And depending on your reading of his films, he might be winking at his established rep for big twists that may or may not live up to the hype: He’s cast himself as a literal bullshit artist, hawking his wares on the airwaves.
It’s an extremely brief cameo, but it potentially highlights a self-awareness Shyamalan’s detractors don’t always grant him. Shyamalan’s oeuvre can be divided into two distinct eras. Self-serious, self-aggrandizing supernatural thrillers built around big twists, like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, shot Shyamalan to box-office success and critical acclaim in the late ’90s. In those films, his cameos were an additional layer to the film’s mythology, and he was a participant in the story. In The Sixth Sense, he’s a doctor who examines Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), the child haunted by visions of the dead. In Unbreakable, he’s a small-time drug dealer who proto-superhero David Dunn (Bruce Willis) touches, giving Dunn a premonition of his crime.
This approach reached its zenith with 2004’s The Village, a film Shyamalan promoted by blurring the line between fact and fiction with a faux documentary that tried to sell the idea that the real-life Shyamalan actually had some sort of supernatural connection. (In addition to a cameo in the film itself, where his presence is integral to the big ending twist.) Then, with Lady in the Water, Shyamalan outright cast himself as a writer destined to save all humanity with his brilliant work. That creative decision wasn’t just off-putting, it was central to a film that was critically reviled for many other reasons. When his next three films flopped — The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth — it became clear that his late-’90s goodwill was entirely spent.
Where Shyamalan’s cameos in this era were defined by straight-faced seriousness, the cameos in his more restrained, low-budget comeback movies have been more winking and playful. In Split, he’s a bumbling security guard trying to help one character with a computer in a scene played for deadpan comedy. In Old, he’s a resort driver who takes the film’s cast to the Beach That Makes People Old. He makes a sly appearance later in the film, observing the cast from a distance through a camera, blurring the line between character and filmmaker, observing his most absurd creation yet. (Glass is the outlier in this era — Shyamalan puts in a stilted, annoyingly winking cameo in an underwhelming film that attempts to link the old and new by being a sequel to both Unbreakable and Split. Shyamalan plays a store customer who bumps into Bruce Willis’ David Dunn.)
Knock at the Cabin is the latest appearance of this new huckster Shyamalan, a goofy presence who sets up a joke without particularly caring whether anyone else is in on it. M. Night Shyamalan, the actor, is no longer trying to be a serious part of his movies. He’s letting himself be a playful presence in them. Unlike in the straight-faced first half of his career, the new version of Shyamalan-as-actor feels a little more comfortable onscreen, a little less severe. He isn’t so much a man trying to write his own way into legend, as he once was. He’s more content to have fun with his image, and to let others decide how they see him. It’s an attitude that would serve him well as a storyteller, because the one thing that is consistent between the old Shyamalan and the new is a compulsion to explain some things far too much, and others not at all.